Gospel nonviolence in action: Early Christians

Martin of Tours, while a soldier. Image by Fr Lawrence Lew OP, Creative Commons licence CC BY-NC-ND

Martin of Tours, while a soldier. Image by Fr Lawrence Lew OP, Creative Commons licence CC BY-NC-ND

What does Gospel nonviolence look like in action? The Fellowship of Reconciliation held a joint conference with the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship looking at this, and included a talk from the Revd David Mumford. Over a series of 14 blogs, some short and some longer, he outlines the different themes and topics covered in his presentation. 

Christians throughout the ages have declared that their first loyalty is to Christ rather than to any secular power. For those Christians for whom a gospel commitment to nonviolence is paramount, that has sometimes led to martyrdom.

Take what happened in 295 CE, in Tebessa in Algeria. Saint Maximilian was brought by his father to enlist. Maximilian declared: “I am not allowed to be a soldier for I am a Christian”.

When told that he must either serve or die, he replied “You may cut off my head but I shall never be a soldier”.

The proconsul Dion did not want to have to execute Maximilian and pointed out to him that there were soldiers who were Christians who served in the Emperor’s bodyguard. Maximilian replied: “They make up their minds what is right for them; I am a Christian and I cannot do what is wrong. My service is for the Lord.”

The choice to follow Christ led to his martyrdom.

Some 60 years later Saint Martin of Tours found himself in the same position. Martin had been baptised in his late teens but was then compelled to join the army – his father had the legal duty to get his son enlisted and Martin apparently was brought in chains to be signed on.

Martin was with the army for many years and during this time his Christian faith deepened. There is the famous account of him cutting his cloak in two to give half to a beggar and then having a vision of Christ coming to him in the selfsame half cloak. The Roman army at that time carried out many of the tasks that our present-day police and highways authorities do.

Eventually in 356 CE Martin, seems to have been faced with a situation where he would have to fight. He declared to his sovereign: “hitherto I have served you as a soldier. Allow me now to become a soldier of God. I am a soldier of Christ. It is not lawful for me to fight.”

He was accused of cowardice, so he demanded on the following day he be placed without arms in front of the line of battle. But there was no battle – the barbarians surrendered and Martin was set free to become a monk and then Bishop of Tours.